Does Morality Make Us Make God In Our Own Image?

According to a recent survey, almost half of all Americans suppose that belief in God is necessary in order to be moral. (In fact, this number is down from previous iterations of the survey.) But how, exactly, does morality relate to a belief in God?

One idea, with roots stretching back to the ancient world, is that belief in God motivates people to conform to moral demands. After all, he carries a big stick (punishment in Hell) while also brandishing a juicy carrot (reward in Heaven). And while both tools could do the job, the big stick seems more effective. Studies show that belief in a punishing God predicts lower rates of cheating (to earn extra pay for an experimental task), and belief in Hell correlates with lower crime rates at a country level (even when controlling for other predictors of crime). Belief in Heaven, by contrast, had no predictive value in the first study, and in fact correlated with higher crime rates in the second. So one way that morality relates to belief in God is via its effect on a person’s behavior.

But could belief in God not only change one’s behavior, but also one’s more basic sense of the nature of morality itself? Dostoyevsky famously maintained that without God not only would people’s behavior devolve into the pursuit of naked self-interest, but morality itself (conceived of in absolute, law-like terms) would simply not exist. This suggests a deeper connection between God and morality — namely, that God alone can provide an objective foundation for morality. If ordinary people share Dostoyevsky’s basic perspective, then they might suppose that in the absence of God, “morality” could refer only to local and parochial ways of organizing human life, akin to manners or customs.

Do people share this perspective? Some recent research seems to suggest that they do. For example, Onurcan Yilmaz and Hasan G. Bahçekapili found that, in a primarily Muslim population, priming God-concepts (through a sentence unscrambling task) led to greater endorsement of moral objectivism and greater rejection of moral relativism.

Yet a more fine-grained hypothesis is suggested by the studies on moral behavior mentioned previously — namely, that certain features of God — his punishing nature, in particular — would be more likely to foster belief in an absolute morality than would other features. Consider the following quotations from the Bible, for example.

Exodus 34:6-7 “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving inequity, transgression and sin.”

Nahum 1:2-3 “The Lord is a jealous God, filled with vengeance and wrath… The Lord is slow to get angry, but his power is great, and he never lets the guilty go unpunished.”

Passages that cast God in these radically different lights are abundant in scripture. The merciful God seems to tell us that sins can be forgiven. The vengeful God seems to tell us that sins are wrong and merit punishment. Is one of these more important to foster a sense of moral absolutism than the other?

In some research recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we found that belief in a punishing God and endorsement of moral objectivism are indeed related: among self-avowed theists, those who believe in the existence of Hell tend to reject the idea that there could be more than one correct answer to moral questions. But what sort of causal story explains these results? Two explanations seem possible. It’s possible that belief in a punishing God leads believers to suppose that God must follow objective standards of right and wrong. (Indeed, a God who punished arbitrarily would not be deserving of worship or praise.) But it’s also possible that belief in an absolutist morality comes first, leading believers to conceive of God as a cosmic judge, jury, and executioner. Of course, both these explanations might be true. So, we tested them in turn.

First, we had religious participants unscramble sentences containing concepts related to the Divine (e.g., “divinity”), punishment (e.g., “revenge”), and combinations of them, but found no evidence that this priming procedure caused theists, in general, to endorse moral objectivism in a subsequent experimental task at higher rates than control groups. However, when we dug more deeply into the data, we found an interesting effect: followers of the Abrahamic faiths in particular (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) did show a greater tendency to endorse moral objectivism when primed with Divinity concepts, and this held true regardless of whether God was described in loving or punishing ways.

What about the second hypothesis: Does belief in an absolute morality lead believers to conceive of God as a punisher? Here, things were more clear-cut. We first asked religious participants to consider the idea that moral rightness and wrongness exist independently of one’s culture and beliefs. In a subsequent task, these religious participants endorsed a punishing conception of God to a greater extent than those who were asked to consider the idea that moral rightness and wrongness are dependent on one’s upbringing and cultural orientation, and those in a control condition.

Together, the above results paint a complicated picture of the relationship between believers’ conceptions of God and their views about the absolute nature of moral edicts. To be sure, one’s particular faith seems to influence one’s perspective on moral absolutism. Thus, followers of Abrahamic religions, reminded of their God (and, perhaps, his moral commandments) tend to endorse an absolutist perspective on morality. But a more general phenomenon also presents itself. Theists of all stripes who are disposed to view morality as absolute also tend to emphasize God’s punishing attributes.

Undoubtedly, it is too soon to say in light of this limited evidence that believers tend to shape God to serve whatever purpose their own, personal views require. But other studies show a similar tendency. For example, researchers have found that American Christians project their own moral ideals onto the figure of Jesus, taking their own ideological orientations (fellowship and caring for liberals, moral teaching for conservatives) to be central to Christianity. Our study suggests that this might hold true for other religions as well.

Perhaps we are now justified in claiming, as Freud once did, that absolutist believers end up conceiving of God as a supernatural “supreme court of justice” who ensures that “all good is rewarded and all evil punished,” because that is just what the absolutist morality with which they imbue the world requires.